Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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College of Physicians of Philadelphia

{College of Physicians of Philadelphia}
College of Physicians of Philadelphia

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is the oldest medical organization in America, or even the Western Hemisphere, having been founded in 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention. The CPP, located on 22nd Street near Market, is not to be confused with the American College of Physicians (a much more recent organization, formed in 1923 and located at Fifth and Arch Streets). The term "Physician" was then much more specific, and Philip Syng Physick, now known as the father of American Surgery was not considered eligible for membership because he was a surgeon, not a physician.

The general idea of the founding of the College seems to have been to focus on the physicians who had attended medical school (usually in Edinburgh), as distinguished from the general run of a physician at the time, who had merely served an apprenticeship. The first medical school, at the University of Pennsylvania (then at Ninth and Walnut Streets, but now at 36th and Spruce) caused the College of Physicians to turn away from pedagogy to the direction of setting standards and providing a forum for the "better sort" of the profession to be self-governing. At one point, there was even a real possibility that the College of Physicians of Philadelphia would become the credentialing agency for the whole country, but licensing took the direction of state boards during the Nineteenth Century. Every book and journal must have a Library of Congress number. The Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has a Library of Congress number, all right. Number one. Jonathan Rhoads, the giant of 20th Century surgery and the only person to be president of the College twice, once remarked that being first may not be terribly important in the greater scheme of things, but -- it's awfully hard to imitate.

The College was a very strong guiding force in the development of a system of medical ethics for the profession. A curious false turn was taken in the direction of Lambda Chi, a secret society of physicians for the purpose of invisibly policing medical conduct, but the College soon recognized this was the wrong direction to take, and eventually, it assumed the lead in forming the American Medical Association in 1848. The portrait of Chapman, the first President of the AMA, hangs above the mantle in the fellows' reception room, the original minutes and rolls of the delegates are found in the library. Half a dozen presidents of the College were also presidents of the AMA, but for some curious reason the College never became the local branch of the AMA, reserving that for the State and Pennsylvania County Medical Societies.

Every year a number of the most distinguished physicians in the world address the College, and an annual lecture by a Nobel Prize winner has been established. The College had the largest medical library in the country until recently, and it is still one of the largest. The present building is a Carnegie Library, in a sense. Andrew Carnegie was a patient of S. Weir Mitchell at the time Mitchell was president of the College and donated a large sum for a new building. The present elegant marble and the walnut-paneled structure was built in 1905, fairly recent by Philadelphia standards but nevertheless a national landmark.

With all this dignity, history and tradition, it likely comes as a surprise to learn that the College building has sixty thousand paid visitors each year. The source of this popularity is a combination of medical exhibits for the public, and the Mutter Museum. In the late Nineteenth Century Thomas Dent Mutter gave his large personal collection of anatomical specimens to the College for a museum in the style of the medieval European medical schools, where the students could learn from specimens on display because anatomical dissection was discouraged if not forbidden, and Kodachrome slides had not been invented. Mutter's collection is a combination of believe-it-or-not "freaks", anthropological studies of human variations, and a museum of medical history. The former curator, Gretchen Worden, has produced an illustrated book of the exhibits which quickly sold out and must be reprinted, and a yearly illustrated calendar which is quite popular. The doctors are a little bemused by the popularity of this material with the public, but tolerant.

Among the odd features of this collection is the brain of Sir William Osler, the giant of modern medical education. Osler belonged to a club of people who had such a high opinion of their own genius they pledged to donate their brains after death to the collection of specimens, in the hope that eventually science would be able to determine the anatomical source of their talents. Most people today are a little staggered at the arrogance of such an idea, so widely at variance with the concept that all men are created equal. Albert Einstein is another acknowledged genius whose brain is still floating in a pickle jar, waiting for its unique properties to be discerned. Presumably, time will eventually tell whether even the greatest intellects suffer from unconquerable hubris, or whether the envious rest of us must adapt to the consensus of political correctness, just to avoid facing the reality of our own inferiority.

Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Yeah, in my opinion, it is written on every fence!!....
Posted by: cheapostay   |   Feb 13, 2012 9:44 AM
Thanks for the article! I hope the author does not mind if I use it for my course work!....
Posted by: esalerugs coupons   |   Feb 13, 2012 9:23 AM
I would like to contact you for permission to use your photograph of the front door of the College of Physicians to illustrate an article on the College for publication on the Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania, operated by the non-profit PA Center for the Book. Please contact me at at your convenience. Thank you for your consideration.
Posted by: Alan Jalowitz   |   Sep 28, 2010 7:42 PM
You are far behind the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico starting in 1578. So you are not the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.
Posted by: George Brolaski   |   May 27, 2008 1:46 PM